by JAMES ORR
He looked up as a woman in a pair of denim cut off shorts and a floral t-shirt walked past the window. Her brunette hair bounced with her step, curls twisting in the breeze. Martin was overcome by a powerful sense of deja vu that turned to dizziness and forced him to work the balls of his hands into his eyes again, sending red sparks and shapes dancing across his eyelids. For a moment he had been whisked back two years, to a different place; to a happier time. A time when he could still call Charlotte his.
Martin forced himself to sit upright in the booth and open his eyes. There was a plastic cup of water on the table that he couldn’t remember ordering. Ice cubes bobbed about the surface and a pool of condensation had formed around the base. Martin picked up the glass and drank half of it in three large gulps. The ice cubes clicked against his teeth.
He had to stop drinking alcohol. His self-control - that ability to know when you’ve had enough - was non-existent. The best part of it was that it was the drinking that had brought him to this point in his life and it was the drinking he was turning to in order to deal with it.
There was a sick sort of irony there that wasn’t lost on him.
He wanted to stop drinking. Hell, he had tried more than once. But when it came down to it, he just wasn’t strong enough. There was always an excuse for turning back to alcohol. A promise to himself that it would be different this time, that he had changed. He would convince himself that not drinking was unsocial, that he was losing friends because he wasn’t going to the bar with them. Anything and everything to justify drinking again.
Martin dipped his finger in the pool of water on the table and traced patterns and indistinct shapes across the surface. He had been dating Charlotte for the better part of two years. She was out of his league; his friends were quick to point that out and he could read as much in the slack jawed amazement of his mother the first time he had introduced her to Charlotte.
That didn’t concern Martin. Neither the low opinion his mother and friends held over him or the fact that, in essence, it was true. Charlotte was out of his league.
Charlotte was beautiful and she was driven. She aimed high and she worked out a path for getting there rather than just dreaming about it. Work colleagues admired her and the male portion wanted to sleep with her. Martin was her opposite, the guy sitting in a bar with his odd grouping of friends, all of them male and most of them wearing t-shirts with the names of their favourite bands stamped across the front. He worked in a local bicycle repair shop and had a three day weekend that suited him just fine.
Martin finished the water, tipped the cup and crunched on one of the ice cubes, working it around his mouth as the coldness stabbed at his teeth. He had loved Charlotte - he still did love her. It was an adulation borne of his understanding that there could be no better, that she was everything he could ever need or want. The crazy part was that she loved him right back. Charlotte, who would be earning six-figures before she was thirty, was in love with slightly chubby (more than slightly) Martin and she didn’t care who knew it.
And Martin had fucked it all up.
Not just a single earth rattling mistake that he could eventually forgive himself for either. Nor was it a mistake she just needed time to digest and move on from before forgiving him – she had given him enough chances already. No, this was a sustained effort, a machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of fucking it up, of going back to the alcohol even as he watched it dismantle his life piece by piece.
His headache was blossoming into something spectacular. He worked his fingers against his temples. His mouth really did taste like hell.
The glass door of the restaurant swished open and a man in dark wash jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up walked in. His blonde hair was swept back into a clean wave and his shoulders filled the shirt.
His dad slid into the booth opposite Martin. He reached over the table and grasped Martin’s hands in his own, squeezing hard before letting go. He was smiling.
"It’s good to see you, son." He said and Martin thought that was mostly true. But there was sadness there in his father’s dark eyes. Sad for Martin? Sure. Sad that Martin had thrown it all away, lost a girl who shouldn’t have even given him a second look in the first place? Certainly.
"You’ve got a headache?" His father asked and Martin nodded. "It’ll pass."
"It sure doesn’t feel like it."
"We haven’t been here since you were a little boy." He said and Martin nodded. "Do you think they still do the stack of pancakes?"
Martin couldn’t help but smile. His father had one of those impossible to hate personalities paired with a good helping of natural charm. He was the type of man who had he been thirty years younger would have been dating a girl like Charlotte without his friends and family being astonished and more than a little perplexed.
But his father also liked to drink. Maybe that was one of the things that Martin had picked up from his father’s half of the gene pool. It was a pity he hadn’t at least received his looks as well - a form of evolutionary compensation.
"We need to order some pancakes; just like old times." His father said and the waitress was there a moment later, holding his father’s gaze for too long and laughing too hard when he asked her not to spare the maple syrup, they were both fixing to expand their belts a notch.
"Everything comes so easy for you." Martin shook his head and smirked. He was feeling better already. The headache was easing and the pancakes were sure to kick the nasty taste from his mouth. He was glad he had come. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spent time with his father.
"Not everything. Not parenthood. I should have been there for you more. I should have taken the time to try and understand just how important my role as father was. And I should have taken you for pancakes more often."
Martin shifted in his seat. "You did just fine dad. And I think if we had gone for pancakes more than once a fortnight mum would have blown a fuse."
"All you have is your health." His father mimicked his mother’s preaching voice and they both laughed.
"We should start coming here again. I like it. Maybe I can watch you charm the waitresses and learn a thing or two."
‘I would like that."
A lot of times when you grow older, you find yourself unpacking and revisiting memories, trying to recapture the joys of your youth, to experience just a little of that childhood fascination and amazement at the world that dulls as you age. Unfortunately, on most of those occasions, you find yourself disappointed: an adult riding a roller-coaster that seems more jittery and uncomfortable than fun; or a middle aged man with his too wide hips wedged into a slide at the play park as children wait impatiently behind.
Martin was delighted to find that the stack of pancakes was not like that. The waitress brought them eight each, all of them as thick as Martin's thumb. On top, like a minaret melting in the sun, was a thick mound of butter. Surrounding the butter and soaking into the sponge of the pancakes were arteries of syrup. The very best part, however, delighting Martin as much now as it did when he was a child, was the single corner of strawberry that rested on top of each stack, an insignificant finger of health atop a mountain of sugary decadence.
They were quiet, two men at work, and when the waitress brought them mugs of coffee they thanked her from around mouthfuls of sticky, syrup drenched pancake. Martin finished all but two of his. His father polished off the entire stack, mopping up the syrup with the last pieces and smacking his lips before sitting back in the seat with a satisfied yawn.
Martin’s headache had retreated way back in his head to no more than a slight discomfort. The horrible, acrid taste in his mouth was replaced by the sweetness of the syrup. He sat in amiable silence with his father for a time, both of them too content for words. They sipped their coffee and gazed at nothing at all.
His father coughed and sat up straight, placing his cup of coffee on the table and holding it between his large hands, turning it this way and that. He looked at Martin.
"Do you understand where you are?" He asked.
Martin frowned. "That’s a pretty big question. Where I am in life? Or it could be a very easy question to answer, if you mean it in the present, literal tense. Because we are in a cafe. The same one you used to take me to when I was a kid."
"Ok, I’ll rephrase: Do you understand that you are dead?"
Martin had been taking a sip of his coffee, satisfied with his witty response. He choked on the coffee and had to raise his hand to his mouth to stop from spraying it over the shiny table top.
"What are you talking about?" He searched his father’s eyes for the tell-tale ribbons of red that indicated he had been drinking and found them clear. They were as focused as he had ever seen them before, as a matter of fact.
"Martin, I died seven years ago. Think about it; really focus on your memories and they will come. They are dusty and hard to reach at first but that will pass. You were at the hospital when I died. You told me you were sorry for telling me you hated me all those times when I was drunk and you just wanted me to be ok. I only heard that after I passed but it was a great comfort to me. Thank you."
Martin frowned and opened his mouth to reply, to rebut his father and ask him if he had been drinking and never mind his curiously clear, focused eyes.
And then Martin stopped and his brow furrowed and his eyes glazed over. Because something was wrong. He tried to picture his father in his mind; not the general idea of him but rather a specific incident within the last few years. It was an odd sensation. It wasn’t difficult to remember - it was impossible. There was nothing there. Someone had taken a big eraser and worked it over his memory.
"Really focus on it, Martin. It will come." His father said.
Martin looked at his father and didn’t see him. He pressed his lips together in a tight line. Fragments of a picture began to form. He saw his father, lying in a hospital bed. His eyes were as yellow as his skin. Tubes and wires curled from his body and mouth and machines wheezed oxygen into his decaying body.
Martin looked at his father now, so tangible and healthy and alive. The memory was continuing to come, the picture clearing like a Polaroid waved back and forth in his hand. His father had acute liver failure. He looked shrunken and much, much older lying in the hospital bed. Martin remembered that he hadn’t even recognised him when he first entered the room; he had thought the man in the bed was a frail pensioner, not his chiselled, forty-two year old father.
His father died slowly and it was wrought with pain. Martin uttered those words, lying with his head on his father’s lap, not wanting to hold his cold, sallow hand and gripping it all the same, watching as he slipped in and out of consciousness, pleading with him to stay alive and all the time watching him die.
It came to him like a swift slap and he jerked back at the realisation of it. He looked at his father who was looking back at him, two pairs of identical eyes focused on one other.
"I’m dreaming." Martin muttered.
"You’re dead." His father said. "Look out of the window."
Martin did look out the window. There was only an intense light that forced him to squint; no sidewalk or parking lot or street lights or buildings or sky. Only a white light.
"I’m dead?" It was a question and a statement. "How?"
"It will come to you in time. You are not ready yet."
Martin looked around the small café. There were four booths running along the wall of windows and another six tables set loose around the space. Against the far wall was the counter with the waitress standing behind it. Behind her was an open hatch into the kitchen area. Except Martin couldn’t see the kitchen. Instead the space was filled by the same light that was beaming through the windows. There were no other customers.
"So you’re telling me heaven is the little cafe you used to take me for pancakes?"
"Always the joker." His father reached across and grasped Martin’s hands again. "This is a place you felt comfortable when you were alive – it is a transitional place. For some it is a cafe they visited with their father, for others a particular room in their house that brings them happy memories. It can be anywhere. It is simply a place to allow the soul to adjust and come to accept that it has moved on."
"And you’re here to help?" Martin was taking deep, slow breaths. He could feel his heart pumping in his chest and that was odd in itself. If he was dead then why was his heart still beating? If he had left his body then why could he still see it; why did he still seemingly possess it?
"All you know is your body." His father said, as though reading his mind. "It will take time for the soul to remember. Right now it still clings on to the life it knew."
"You’re supposed to help me with all of this?"
His father opened his mouth to reply but a tremor rumbled through the restaurant, silencing him and skidding the tables and chairs across the laminate floor and rattling the lights overhead. The light pouring in the windows and serving hatch back by the kitchen dimmed to a greyish hue as though the generator powering it was guttering. The plates and mugs in front of them wobbled and Martin watched the coffee in his mug as it pulsed with rings. Martin’s father put a steadying hand on his plate until the tremor passed. As it did, the white light brightened once more, winding back up slowly.
"We haven’t much time left." His father said.
"What was that?"
"This is only a stopover, it’s not stable." He said. His dark eyes circled the room and Martin followed his gaze. The waitress was gone. "I had to see you and help you understand."
"Well you’re not doing a very good job of it." Martin said. A few of the chairs were pulled back from the tables, as though an invisible hand had tugged them out for an invisible woman. Apart from that it was like the tremor had never happened. Except the waitress was gone. Martin couldn’t shake the feeling that she had abandoned a sinking ship.
Martin rubbed at his eyes. His headache wanted to come back.
"Martin, our time on earth can be a miserable experience. The soul is at times ill prepared for the harshness of that reality, of a journey based on an animalistic origin. There is anger and hate; fear and cowardice; pain and suffering. It grates with the soul and yet that life cannot exist without those challenges. It is our job to experience them and try our best to reduce their influence, to overcome them and to grow. Above all, we must endure."
"Growth. We grow through experience. We can begin to understand the Universe; that is to say we can understand ourselves. We grow through understanding; it is the food of the soul, the energy source that powers everything, the vibration that is existence."
Another tremor rattled the restaurant, this one more powerful and lasting for longer than the previous. The light coming through the windows flickered like a fluorescent bulb ready to pop. Two seats tipped backwards and a hideous crack tore up the window closest to the door with a sound like ice being crushed under an old boot.
"What happens now?" Martin asked once it had ended. His wide eyes searched the cafe.
"Martin," his father caught his eyes and held his gaze. "You did not endure and you did not understand."
"What are you talking about?"
"Think. Remember how you came to be here."
Martin licked his dry lips. His headache was back now, thumping at his skull. His memories were concealed beneath a slab of granite. He could not shift it, no matter how he tried. There was no purchase for his fingers. All he could remember was Charlotte and their relationship ending because of his own stupidity- and there was something he had endured plenty of. His own stupidity had shackled him for most of his life. Except it wasn’t a chain and ball fastened to his ankle, it was a bottle and it was glued to his hand.
Martin looked at his father. There was something there, a crack down the edge of the slab of stone.
"You must remember." His father said.
And he did.
Martin remembered Charlotte ending their relationship, the girl who was out of his league finally deciding that enough was enough. She decided to say no more. No more to the drunken arguments and raging anger, no more to the abusive phone calls or the unbridled hatred, to the hideous creature Martin became. Martin had felt the emotions his father had mentioned. He had been filled with anger and hate, both of them aimed inward; he had been frightened because he knew that he wanted to change and a coward because he knew that he would not; the pain had been very real, it had pumped through his veins like shards of a broken bottle, fuel for the suffering.
But he had not endured.
Another tremor. One of the overhead lights exploded, tinkling shards of light bulb onto the floor. The cracked window sprung new fragmented branches. Martin watched as his plate with two soggy pancakes skirted across the table as though in slow motion and fell to the floor, landing pancake side down with a squelch.
His head was really pounding now, the pressure against his skull intense. The taste was back in his mouth, metallic and sickly.
He was staring straight ahead, remembering and not wanting to see. He was sitting on the edge of his bed. The cream duvet he had bought with Charlotte was crumpled in one corner of the room. Empty bottles of beer and an empty bottle of vodka were scattered like strange footprints across the carpet. He was crying. Slow, melancholy tears ran down his face. There was a picture of Charlotte in his lap, beautiful and smiling up at him. The photograph was dotted with his tears.
"There isn’t much time, Martin." His father said now.
Martin could feel the weight of the shotgun in his hands. The barrels were oily and he could see the swirls of his fingerprints on them like hieroglyphs. He slipped those oily barrels in between his teeth, right up so that they pressed against the roof of his mouth. The taste was acidic and vile.
He did not think about what he was about to do. He was past being merely drunk and into that dangerous realm of darkness that takes a hold of him. It was the darkness that had torn his relationship down like a derelict, rotten building, smashing around him and showering him with sharp, jagged rubble.
He pulled the trigger.
Charlotte looked up at him as his brains and fragments of skull exited his head in a fountain. The noise in the small room was deafening. Martin heard nothing at all.
Currently the restaurant door burst open and as it arched around on its hinges the powerful light emanating from the windows and the kitchen blinked out completely. It was replaced by complete darkness – no, not darkness. It was blackness. The restaurant felt suddenly bare and cold. Shadows stretched here and there, sharp angles and hidden spaces.
Two figures came through the door, both of them no more than black shapes that drifted along the floor. They were holes in reality.
"Martin. Listen to me."
"What is going on?" The tremor was back and this time it was in Martin’s voice.
"You did not endure. You must go with them now."
They drifted toward Martin, both of them like oil pumped from the darkest depths of the earth. They stopped next to the table and Martin backed away, skirting across the seat to the window.
"Martin, I am sorry."
But his father was gone. It was only Martin and two hideous apparitions. One of them reached out a clawed hand that clamped onto Martin’s ankle. The grip was vice-like and cold, oh so cold. Martin tried in vain to kick it off even as he felt the coldness spreading through his body, leeching into his veins and crawling up to his heart. He screamed.
James Orr lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is twenty-seven years old and has been writing fiction since he was sixteen. He has only recently decided to progress his hobby with the aim of seeing his novel published. James focuses on the horror genre and lists his favourite author as Stephen King.
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